Guest Commentary: Education continues to take back seat

Guest Commentary: Education continues to take back seat

By Gene A. Budig and Alan Heap

Corporations of today see economic strength continuing in the U.S. if creativity and performance are recognized and rewarded, and executives are willing to shovel more private dollars to the schools if they produce needed and timely reformation.

Able teachers are high on their list of concerns. Not so much so with elected state and national representatives.

Despite repeated pleas from leaders in business and industry to pay appreciably more attention to the needs of teachers and innovative programs in elementary and secondary schools, the political circles are seemingly more interested in lesser topics.

Like getting elected.

The latter group does not seem to understand that in an increasingly competitive, technological and connected world, our individual and collective welfare depends on education. More than ever, in fact.

Few would have predicted that business and industry would be more concerned with the plight of teachers and classrooms than the elected representatives of the citizenry or the keepers of the public trust.

Despite some reports to the contrary, teachers like their jobs. Some studies indicate that nearly 90 percent of teachers are satisfied with their professional lot.

Recent surveys also tell us that as high as 75 percent of the public have confidence and trust in public school teachers.

Unfortunately, attrition rates are high and continuing to rise; nearly half of the teaching force leaves within the first years. That is a more than 50 percent increase in the past 15 years.

And in some settings, the situation is even worse. Attrition is well over 25 percent in many urban schools, and that is especially troubling to business leaders who contend that this cannot continue if cities are to be attractive destinations in which to live. Teachers are woefully underappreciated and underpaid. Even a majority of politicians agree.

One needs to acknowledge that attrition costs school districts nearly $8 billion a year on teacher turnover and that cannot be sustained. It is a societal travesty. But there are emerging rays of hope as the private sector is more and more receptive to reaching out with a firm and helping hand.

To be fair, many candidates for public office are not comfortable debating issues surrounding education; those matters are complicated and complex, more often than not, involving volatile matters like social class, race and the economy.

Democracy depends on civic engagement and civic engagement is a learned skill. It cannot be relegated.

And this lack of attention has very real consequences. Reality leads us to fear that the new year will provide little relief, if any, in terms of new state and local dollars. Capital spending to build and renovate schools may also suffer.

Many in education are worried and for good reason. A majority of university chancellors/presidents do not anticipate much of anything in terms of new public support. Rather, many see possible slippage in terms of state support and further tuition and fee increases that are already too steep and forcing many deserving students to abandon hope for graduation. Student loans are spiraling out of control and no answer is in sight.

Perhaps the only bright spot is growing access to needed and valued community colleges where many students keep their aspirations alive. These two-year colleges mean immediate job opportunities and an opening for four-year degree.

Gene A. Budig — chairman of The News-Gazette Inc.'s board — is the former president of Illinois State and West Virginia universities and former chancellor of the University of Kansas. He was also past president of baseball's American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.

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